How we Can Help With Atrial Fibrillation
“Atrial fibrillation is a relatively common cardiac arrhythmia in older patients. Although it is common, it should not be ignored, as it can lead to serious complications such as stroke. If you have symptoms of atrial fibrillation, it is important that you come in immediately to be seen”.
What is atrial fibrillation?
Atrial fibrillation is an abnormal rhythm of the atria, the upper chambers of the heart. In atrial fibrillation, instead of the atria contracting regularly and forcefully in concert with the ventricles, sending blood to the ventricles where it can be pumped out to the rest of the body, the atria quiver chaotically (and often very rapidly), resulting in decreased blood flow to the ventricles. This can cause fluid to back up into the lungs, causing symptoms of congestive heart failure. Atrial fibrillation is also a major risk factor for stroke. Why? When the atria quiver, blood can coagulate and form a clot, which may then be pumped out into the circulation and may eventually head for the brain, causing a stroke. Atrial fibrillation may be acute or chronic.
What are the symptoms of atrial fibrillation?
Some people are not aware that they have atrial fibrillation and do not notice that their heart is beating irregularly. Others, especially people who have chronic heart disease such as congestive heart failure, may experience:
- palpitations, the sensation that their heart is beating irregularly or too quickly or is “flopping around” in their chest
- shortness of breath
- chest pain
- low blood pressure
- confusion (due to lack of oxygen to the brain)
- chest pain (Note: if you have chest pain and/or severe shortness of breath and palpitations, you should go to the nearest emergency room, as chest pain may indicate that you are having a heart attack. It’s always better to be safe than sorry.)
Paroxysmal atrial fibrillation may come and go. Chronic atrial fibrillation means that your heart rhythm is always irregular.
What causes atrial fibrillation?
Atrial fibrillation may occur in conjunction with, or because of, many other conditions:
- previous heart attack- a previous heart attack may damage tissue that is normally responsible for regulating heart rhythm
- diseased heart valves- heart valves that do not open and close properly, allowing blood to flow backwards in the heart (regurgitation) may cause atrial fibrillation
- thyroid disease- if your thyroid is overactive, you may experience paroxysmal atrial fibrillation that can usually be treating your hyperthyroidism appropriately
- high blood pressure- high blood pressure can damage the heart over time
- congenital heart defects- if you are born with abnormalities of the heart, you may develop atrial fibrillation
- lung disease- emphysema and COPD may cause atrial fibrillation
- stimulants- caffeine, alcohol, tobacco or certain drugs may cause transient atrial fibrillation that will go away once the offending substance wears off
- malfunctioning of the normal pacemaker of the heart (the SA node, which normally regulates heart rate)
What can you expect if you come and see us about atrial fibrillation?
If you are experiencing symptoms such as palpitations, weakness, dizziness or shortness of breath, it’s very important that you be seen by a physician. Ignoring these symptoms may mean that you could suffer a stroke or other complication.
When you come to see us, we will ask you about your past medical history, looking for clues as to what may be causing your symptoms. We will want to know about all the medications you are taking, including over-the-counter and herbal remedies. We will also want to know if you have any allergies to medications.
We will need you to tell us in detail about your symptoms: When did they start? Do they come and go? Does anything make them better or worse? Be as specific as you can and tell us everything, even if you think it is not relevant.
After we have gathered some information, we will examine you. We will listen carefully to your heart and lungs. We may also assess your legs and abdomen for edema (excess fluid that has pooled in your legs or abdominal area). We will obtain your vitals (heart rate, blood pressure, oxygen saturation). We may also weigh you so that we have a baseline for comparison in the future.
We will order an ECG, which is a recording or your heart’s electrical activity. The test is not painful and takes only minutes to perform. It can provide valuable information on the condition of your heart. We may also order blood work, including a complete blood count and electrolytes to check for electrolyte imbalance and anemia, as well as liver function tests, cholesterol tests and others as we feel they are necessary.
If you have atrial fibrillation, we can talk about treatment. If we feel it is necessary, we may send you to one of our cardiologists. If you need to be seen by a heart specialist, we will work with your specialist to care for you, following your specialists’ recommendations. If you have atrial fibrillation, it will be important for you to be seen regularly in order to keep on top of your condition and prevent serious complications.
How is atrial fibrillation treated?
Treatment is aimed at prevention of blood clots and control of your heart rate. This is usually achieved with medications such as blood thinners and heart medications that slow your heart rate. Treatment will depend on how long you have had symptoms, how much your symptoms bother you and what the underlying cause of your atrial fibrillation is thought to be.
If you have symptoms of atrial fibrillation, do not ignore your symptoms. Make an appointment today.